1978 highlights Afro-Cuban art in Picasso show

African-Cuban artist Juan Antonio Picasso displays his culturally inspired work in Maplewood

Photo Courtesy of Mansa Mussa Artist Juan Antonio Picasso explains his artistic process and inspiration at a Gallery 1978 exhibit.
Photo Courtesy of Mansa Mussa
Artist Juan Antonio Picasso explains his artistic process and inspiration at a Gallery 1978 exhibit.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Afro-Cuban art and culture took center stage as Gallery 1978 hosted visiting artist-in-residence Juan Antonio Picasso from Cuba as part of its Black History Month programming, which included a conversation with the artist, local artist Ben Jones and curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom on Saturday, Feb. 13, at the gallery on Springfield Avenue in Maplewood.

Picasso, who hails from Havana, Cuba, is an Afro-Cuban relative of Pablo Picasso, and is one of only 40 living descendants of Pablo Picasso’s grandfather, who lived in Cuba.

During the artist’s weeklong stay, Gallery 1978 hosted several events highlighting the rich history of Cuba its connection to the United States. One event included a video showing a delegation of artists and intellectuals to Havana during the summer of 2014; the group included Gallery 1978 curators Evelyn Graves and Nettie Thomas, and was led by Jones.

It was this positive exchange two years ago that would eventually bring Picasso to Maplewood.

“We had gone to Cuba with Ben Jones for an exhibit of African-American artists doing abstraction. While there we were made aware of just how many of the Cubans are Afro-Cubans,” Thomas said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “That’s not something that’s commonly known in the U.S., because when we think of Cuban, we think of Ricky Ricardo, and we thought it would be an excellent choice to have (Picasso) come here because of our common ancestry.”

Thomas said that she and some of the others in the delegation had met Picasso at an artist exhibit and recalled him being very personable, and when they reached out to Jones to suggest a Cuban artist, Picasso’s name was suggested.

In addition to being a well-known artist, Jones is a retired professor of art at New Jersey City University; he immediately got the ball rolling for what turned out to be an arduous process — due to the fragile relations between Cuba and the United States.

“Once we decided on Picasso as the artist, there was still a great deal of paperwork that needed to be done because, at that point, President Obama had not changed how the U.S. dealt with Cuba,” Thomas said. “He had to make an appointment to even apply for an application to come here, and there were so many issues and requirements that had to be dealt with. We filled out the visa about what he was doing and were told that the Cuban government wouldn’t accept flight reservations further than a month out from departure.”

Despite these difficulties, Picasso successfully made it to the United States, where he took part in several events at the gallery, including the Feb. 13 panel discussion and an artist reception Sunday, Feb. 14.

“We are able to have our artist-in-residence program instead of just a one-time event with an artist because of the generosity of the Burgdorff Cultural Center,” Thomas, who curated the exhibit said. “They donated money to the Gallery 1978, which allowed us to expand our efforts. So when we choose an artist, there has to be historical significance, and exposure to artists that my students would have studied in their textbooks. With Picasso, we were able to discuss not only Pablo Picasso, but also the many Afro-Cuban themes present in the work of Juan Antonio Picasso.”

The event Saturday was an opportunity for Picasso to discuss his art and the layers of symbolism found in it, as well as a chance to hear the insights of both Jones and Bloom, who serves as the curator of American Art at the Newark Museum.

Picasso, who initially chose to study medicine, did not fully embrace his artistic talents until 2005, when he was invited to show some of his work in a private gallery. Someone from Spain saw the work and requested that he exhibit it there. Then, his work was shown in Germany, and he realized that he could be a professional artist.

Through translation, Picasso said his work examines a variety of themes, including immigration, the role of women, the impoverished, and the guitar, the last of which is currently on display at Gallery 1978.

Though he takes pride in his connection to his famous ancestor, Picasso takes care to include many distinctive African elements in his work in order to highlight his desire to explore both sides of his ancestry. Yoruba symbols and images of cowry shells are frequently seen in his works, and are just as much a signature as his name.

Picasso also discussed the professional challenges inherent to living in Cuba and creating art that is at times politically and socially charged.

“For three years I wasn’t able to show my work professionally, and at one point I had to close a gallery showing because my work was being damaged,” the artist said. “I now only exhibit in private galleries, where this is less likely to happen, like in the government galleries in Havana.”

Juan Antonio Picasso’s exhibit, “The Creative Cuban Connection,” is on display at Gallery 1978 through March 20.